From my radio series on the LA River
When you think of the Los Angeles River what images comes to mind? Concrete? Maybe trash? Dirty water? But when some people look at the river they see willows and waterfowl—and they envision a future where the LA River is at the center of a greener city. All this week, KPCC’s environmental reporter, Ilsa Setziol, explores the dreams—and realities—of revitalizing the Los Angeles River.
SETZIOL: Once there was a wild river in Los Angeles. And the river had the run of the place. It wandered all over the LA basin, sometimes gushing, sometimes tricking. It nourished Native American villages. And created a landscape that delighted the first Spanish explorers, who noted the “very good water: pure and fresh.”
But even in the 19th Century, Angelenos were real estate hungry. They wanted land that belonged to the river. And when flooding damaged property and killed 59 people in 1938, they demanded the river be tamed. By the 1960s, most of the 52-mile-long river was forced into a cement channel. It became a dumping ground, a conduit for waste water. It was a joke: “that’s our river, that sewer that looks like another freeway.”
REYES: The river became essentially where you hid your gaslines, your pipelines, your powerlines, your rail lines,
SETZIOL: Los Angeles City Councilman Ed Reyes.
REYES: and you let those people live there so it became a social and economic divider, a place you send those other people to the other side of the tracks.
SETZIOL: But in the 1980s a group of artists saw all that concrete as a blank canvas, a place for a different vision. Poet Lewis McAdams and others founded Friends of the Los Angeles River.
MCADAMS: The basic line was meeting people down by the river, making the river a place where people gather. The reason the city is here is because of the LA River
SETZIOL: McAdams walks through newly ploughed ground at what’s called the Cornfields. This former rail yard near the river in downtown is being turned into a state park. McAdams watches an evening performance piece created for the site. A dancer lifts a lantern to illuminate multicolored ears of corn attached to a chainlink fence.
MCADAMS: Most people can’t see what’s not there, only artists and schizophrenics can see what’s not there. The only people who could even imagine what I was talking about were artists.
SETZIOL: What McAdams was talking about was a return of a real river: with species that had disappeared, such as the steelhead trout. After legal and public relations efforts by Friends of the LA River, local officials started to see beyond the concrete. LA County developed a new masterplan and spent a hundred million dollars on trees, bike paths, and other improvements. Today, throughout the watershed, Angelenos are starting to gather in new parks, experiencing the river in places that used to be fenced off.
(fade up drumming sound & crowd chatter)
As the performance concludes, the audience gathers around a bonfire enclosed by river rock.
(bike bells) (drumming continued)
A group of cyclists wheel in. They pop open beers. Nelson Ornelas, Eric Crawford, and Philip Franco, kick around ideas for the river.
ORNELAS: I seen this city live up. I seen it changing. This used to be a railroad track, we used to come here and party my gang…I love this transformation. This city’s got so much vibes and so much potential.
FRANCO: We need this water. We live a desert
CRAWFORD: Couldn’t there ultimately be cafes on the LA River where you could have a glass of wine.
FRANCO: Maybe taco trucks certain parts of the day. (laughter)
(fade down on additional chat)
SETZIOL: As the men talk, their chatter and the drumming seem to pulse into the dark downtown sky, creating currents of anticipation.
For the bikers and many others, the once neglected river has become a focal point for ideas about a greener city. And many Angelenos now want a lot from it: more parks, cleaner water, a fix for neglected neighborhoods, and a healthier inner city.
LA City Councilman Ed Reyes:
REYES: I want to rezone the corridor, and create a river front district that has all these different elements of open space, natural habitats, as well as economic development opportunities.
MELANIE WINTER: It’s the one thing that connects all of our communities besides our freeways.
SETZIOL: Melanie Winter squats on a boulder in the middle of the river as it races through Sepulveda Recreation area in the San Fernando Valley. There’s no concrete on the bottom of the river here, but plastic bags, auto parts, and shopping carts are strewn over the riverbed and in the willows.
(roaring river sound)
WINTER: It’s not just a case of wanting it back, we need it back, for so many reasons. And the river is fundamental to making this a healthy place to be again. There’s a way for us to coexist with this river, to allow it to serve us and to allow us to appreciate it.
(roaring sound cross fade)
Ilsa Setziol, 89.3, KPCC
To hear the rest of the series, check out this link.
Recommended reading: Down By the Los Angeles River, Joe Linton, Wilderness Press